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Inch - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 3/2019 vom 05.09.2019

When the band Between Music decided to give a concert under water they didn’t know how difficult it would be. After inventingwater-resistant instruments and strugglingwith hydrophones, tiny air bubblesand standing waves for years, their show Aquasonic is now a favourite at festivals worldwide.

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Als die Band Between Music beschloss, ein Konzert unter Wasser zu geben, wussten keiner der Musiker, wie schwierig das sein würde. Nachdem sie wasserfeste Instrumente erfunden und jahrelang mit Hydrophonen, Luftblasen und stehenden Wellen gekämpft haben, ist ihre Show Aquasonic heute ein Highlight auf ...

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... Festivals weltweit.

Atap ,drain pumps withfire hoses and 12,000 litres of drinking water. Such things are rarely part of thetechnical riders bands send ahead to make sure thevenue meets their technicalrequirements . For the Danish band Between Music, however, it’s at the top of the list because their show Aquasonic is, literally,performed under water.

Dressed in full concertfinery , they sing and play violin, percussion and unusual instruments called rotacorda, crystallophone or hydraulophone just like any otherchamber music quintet – except that they do all this underwater while holding their breath. Each musician issubmerged in his or her own fish tank to keep at least theaudience dry.

The maritime music is hard to describe:ethereal with a touch of whale song,haunting andeerie at times but in a good way. Working with therestrictions – andpossibilities – of water as a medium, the group creates asoundscape that seems to touch something deep within us, reminding us of a past in thewomb or even further back in our evolution.

Little wonder thesound-soaked performances of the world’s first ever underwater band instantly became a hit at festivals all over the world when they started touring in 2016. The road tosuccess , however, was a long and, in this particular case, wet andslippery one.

“It all started in 2004, when Laila tried singing to abowl of water,”recalls Robert Karlsson, general manager, musician andfounding member of Between Music. Laila Skovmand, singer and the group’s artistic director, has always been very experimental. One day, she filled a bowl of water in her kitchen andtrained a microphone on it just to find out how this would affect the sound of her voice. The result wasn’t great but interesting enough for the idea to remain stuck in her head. Two years later at a European art laboratory she tried again, this time with her head fully submerged and,for lack of a bettersolution , a microphone stuck in a condom towater-proof it. “It still didn’t sound good enough but it was then she had this vision of a whole band playing under water,” remembers Karlsson.


What followed was an intensive research onprevious underwater bands – there were none – and long talks to experts to find out how soundpropagates under water, how to record that sound and how to actually sing under water. After many training sessions with yoga teachers and free divers, Skovmand developed a unique technique where she slowly moves the air bubble created by her singing in her mouth withoutexpelling it. Toaccompany her singing percussive instruments were anobvious choice. Gongs,singing bowls and drums are easy to handle and mainlyimpervious to water – although their sound is differentdue to thedensity andincompressibility of water.

The trouble was finding an instrument capable of creatingsustained notes. That’s when, in 2012, Skovmand and Karlsson met to become the “Yin and Yang of the band”, as Karlsson puts it. Immediatelycaptivated by the idea ofsub-aquatic symphonies, Karlsson bought the cheapest violin he could find anddipped it into an aquarium. The sound waspromising butunsurprisingly the violindisintegrated after a fewattempts . Luckily, Karlsson knew of violins made fromcarbon fibre and had one made especially for underwater use. Another idea was to use electromagnets toexcite strings orreeds . As it turned out, the high density of the water would require too much power to be safe. Anyway, water combined with large electriccurrents is never a good idea. So, it was back to the drawing board in search for mechanical, water-resistant instruments.

Between Music is the first band to perform submerged in fish tanks. Laila Skovmand (below) and Nanna Bech (left) even sing underwater.


A contact to Andy Cavatorta, instrument makerextraordinaire , proved to be the answer. The New-York-based artist came highlyrecommended as he had previously designed instruments for Björk. In the end, he built two instruments for Between Music by adapting traditional instruments to the wetenvironment .

The rotacorda, played by Nanna Bech, was inspired by a traditional Byzantinehurdy-gurdy . Cavatorta had ahunch that such an instrument might work under water since itshand-cranked , rotating wheel constantly rubs against the strings thus overcoming the extremedampening quality of the water. By pressing its six strings against thefrets the rotacorda can be played much like a guitar.

At least, that’s the theory. In practice, Cavatorta had toconsider factors instrument makers aren’t generally confronted with such as corrosion ortoxicity . Obviously, the instruments couldn’t be made from wood orferrous metals. Cavatorta also couldn’t use materials from far ends of thegalvanic series , or together they would create corrosive electric cells when placed underwater. In addition, all components had to benon-soluble andnon-toxic ,ruling out many metalalloys ,lubricants ,adhesives , andleaded glass .

In the end, Cavatortaopted for a Steampunk-inspired cylindrical design withcrescent-shaped frets and acrank reminiscent of an oldsewing machine . A giant gramophone-stylehorn was added later, not toboost the instrument’s sound but to concentrate it for the recording hydrophone.

Cavatorta’s second masterpiece is the crystallophone, similar to the glass harmonica invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. The basic principle is similar to the way a tone is created by rubbing the wetrim of a wine glass – perfect for an artist who is performing under water anyway. Despite the simple physics, the instrument proved to be nearly impossible totune . Cavatorta endlesslyground and re-ground the quartz glass bowls to hit the right notes. What was in tune one day, though, was totally off the next day.Hesitantly he handed over the instrument. “I even had to learn to grind the bowls myself,” smiles Karlsson, who plays the crystallophone. “It took me a while to realize that the distances between the bowls affect thetuning . Adjusting them was so effective, in fact, that it made all the grinding completely unnecessary.” Physical oscillators that ring separately in air, as it turns out, can beintimately intertwined underwater. A phenomenon the band wouldencounter more than once.


While the rotacorda, the crystallophone and the percussion instruments played by Dea Marie Kjeldsen and Morten Poulsen work perfectly fine in the dry, although with a different tuning, Laila Skovmand’s unique hydraulophone actually needs water to be played. Developed by Ryan Janzen,inventor , artist and scientist at the University of Toronto, the hydraulophone is atranslucent cylinder with amanifold and lots oftubing connected to sixtone holes at the top. Once the stream of water that is pumped through the instrument is blocked, the watercolumn starts toresonate much like the air in arecorder . The sound is then picked up by a hydrophone connected to the cylinder and amplified. “The hydraulophone is probably one of the most exciting instruments I have ever played,” praises Skovmand. “It’s incredibly organic and verysensorial to play on these waterjets – you can play with vibrato and all other kinds of finesse.”

Top (left to right): Nanna Bech – vocals, rotacorda, Morten Poulsen – percussion, Robert Karlsson – violin, crystallophone, Dea Marie Kjeldsen – percussion and Laila Skovmand –vocals, hydraulophone.

The rotacorda (left) and the crystallophone are based on traditional instruments which were adapted for use in water. In contrast, the hydraulophone (middle) actually needs pressurized water to produce sounds.

Singing under water requires a special breathing technique to avoid creating bubbles.

With theline-up now complete, Between Music startedrehearsing , but the endless days in the tanks soon became frustrating. “We faced a problem that one day the instruments sounded really good with a very long sound and the next day it just sounded ‘klock’ and there was not much sound at all,”recollects Skovmand.Desperate , they contacted Professor Preston Wilson from the University of Texas, an expert for underwater acoustics. Wilson was able topinpoint the problem: “In small water tanks little unwanted air bubbles act as sound absorbers. The presence of bubbles

can really change the way these instruments sound.” When you fill a tank with fresh water it contains a lot of air, whichcovers all the instruments with tiny air bubbles. The solution is simple enough: Let the waterrest for a while and get rid of allexcess bubbles before the concert.

Another puzzle Wilson couldsolve was the positioning of the hydrophones in the tanks. Early on the band realized that the recording quality was highly sensitive to the placement of the hydrophones and littleshifts of the instrument or the musician in the tank. “Another problem in small water tanks is the presence of a strong modal structure inside the tank, whichaffects the way sound propagates,” explains Wilson. In large rooms standing waves aren’t anissue but in theconfined space of a small aquarium there are areas where the sound is loud and clear and others where there is almost no sound at all.Equipped with the theory, and after much experimenting, the band found the sweet spots for each instrument and in the process learned toappreciate their individual tanks as asounding body and essential part of their instrument.

With all the tuning, themeticulous , time-consuming preparation and the cubic meters of water Aquasonic needs a lot ofpreparation . Before each tour the band spends months rehearsing and, as a result,clocks underwater time like a professionaldiver . “We are currently recording our first album and spend about six to eight hours a day in the tanks,” reveals Karlsson in one of the rare dry moments in between. Although it has taken a lot of work and almost 12 years from the first experiments in the kitchen to a festival favourite, Between Music’s show is only the first step in their musicaljourney . “Aquasonic is the first part of our Quadrology project,” explains Karlsson. Quadrology will fol low the evolution from the water where we all come from to theemergence of the rationalmind . In the next show, the audience will sit inside a giant eggshell swimming on the water. Imagine the technical rider for a show like this. Booking Between Music certainly won’t get easier for concert organisers.

Robert Karlsson also plays a carbon fibre violin. First experiments with a wooden violin were short-lived – it simply disintegrated.

< PHOTO: JENS PETER ENGEDAL Webseite von Between Music und ihrem Projekt Aquasonic mit vielen Videos. Andy Cavatorta hat das Rotacorda und das Crystallophone für Aquasonic gebaut. Homepage von Ryan Janzen, der das Hydraulophone gebaut hat. Webseite von Prof. Preston Wilson an der University of Texas, der Between Music in Fragen der Unterwasserakustik beraten hat.

Five fish tanks on a blackened stage. The show Aquasonic is an acoustic as well as a visual experience.





Ahydrophone is a type of microphone which is specifically designed for underwater use. Instead ofdetecting sound in the air, a hydrophone detects sounds in the water and converts the acoustic energy into electrical energy.

Most hydrophones are made from a piezoelectric material. This material produces small electricalcharges whenexposed to pressure changes. Under the pressure of a sound wave, the piezoelectric elementflexes and in return gives off electrical signals which can berecorded .

Omnidirectional hydrophones record sounds from all directions with equalsensitivity while directional hydrophones have a higher sensitivity to signals from a particular direction. Directional hydrophones are typically used in systems forlocating andtracking objects.